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Tom Barber advises on leaf clearance
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The Independent Online
It seems a little intemperate to curse trees because their leaves fall off. The inconvenience, however, can be real enough, and poetic musings on nature's rich cyclical pageant are scant comfort when faced with all those rotting autumn corpses.

A smothering of fallen leaves can kill grass and other low-growing plants and will congeal on paths and driveways to form a soggy, slippery mess. They gleefully block gutters and drains and can also provide a winter refuge for the fungal spores of existing diseases such as scab and blackspot.

Leaves landing in ponds slowly putrefy into a stinky black gunk which can pollute the water. If you have ponds that are liable to leaf invasion, cover the water with netting during autumn, or fish the leaves out while they are still afloat.

If your deceased leaves do not carry any of these threats, then repress any tendency you have for tidiness and let them alone. Leaf clearing is tedious at the best of times. Besides, in a suitable place such as a shrubby border, an annual dressing of leaves is positively beneficial, forming a natural mulch and returning valuable nutrients to the soil. But if a leaf cull is required, you have three choices: the rake, the wheeled leaf-sweeper and the blower-vac.

The good news is that not only is a rake the cheapest and simplest tool, but also, in most situations, it is as fast as anything else and often the most effective. Spring-tined and stone rakes are pretty hopeless, as they quickly become clogged with impaled leaves. Do yourself the favour of getting one that has been designed for the job, with broader or softer heads, such as the rubber-toothed Wizard from Bulldog or the plastic leaf rake from Spear and Jackson. A traditionalist may opt for a heather besom, which, if handled with energetic dexterity, does an excellent job.

Picking up the assembled piles of leaves is swiftest using a simple pair of wooden boards, but if repeated bending and lifting is a problem get yourself a long-handled leaf-grabber.

For moving the piles to wherever you want them, I find a large, tough sheet the best bet, though you need to be able to lift the thing, and you may find a capacious wheelbarrow is easier to manage.

Lawn-sweepers operate just like a carpet-sweeper, with wheels turning a series of brushes that propel the debris into a rear-mounted bag. They work best on areas such as good turf and hard surfaces (not gravel) but are less satisfactory if the ground is uneven. There is not much to choose between the various models on the market, though wider machines will obviously complete the task in a shorter time.

Powered leaf-collectors are a relatively recent commodity. They employ either a vacuum to suck the leaves up into a bag, or a blower that harries them into more easily raked up heaps. Many have both, and some also incorporate a shredder which chops the leaves up as they are drawn in, reducing both their volume and their composting time.

The cheapest electric leaf-collectors can now be had for less than pounds 100. But, as with most garden machinery, the best performance almost always comes from larger, heavier and more expensive models.

Call me a Luddite, but on the whole these machines seem to be more trouble than they are worth, being no quicker than a vigorously wielded rake and certainly no more thorough, especially when you are faced with wet leaves, twigs and fruit. I suggest you try one out before you buy.

A cheaper alternative on grass is to use a mower on its highest setting, with a grass box fitted. This will pick up most of a leafy carpet, and shred it into the bargain.

Never discard the leaves that you have laboured to collect, as they produce the most marvellous of all organic materials. They take time to decompose so are best dealt with in their own pile rather than the compost heap. You will have to wait between one year and two before you've got usable leaf mould, though mixing in some grass clippings the following spring will speed things up.

A simple wire cage is quite adequate. Firmly tread down each addition of leaves and add a little water if they are dry. For smaller quantities you could just use plastic sacks. It's worth it in the end. Honest.

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